Derived from the Greek verb paskhein, meaning to be in a certain condition, to experience, or to suffer, pathos is one of the three principal sources of rhetorical proof along with ethos and logos. Typically translated into English as “emotion,” pathos is a key term in the ancient debate between philosophy and rhetoric because it tracks basic attitudes about human nature and civil society.
In the western canon, emotions have long been treated with caution by those who would hail the virtues of rational discourse aimed at truth. And since Plato (c. 428–c. 347 bce), such caution is the symptom of a divisive political philosophy separating experts from non-experts. As Socrates suggests in the Gorgias – Plato’s famous diatribe against rhetorical art – the rhetorician might have luck arguing to the ignorant about something like the causes of health and sickness, but among experts, the diagnosis of a trained doctor will carry more weight. In contrast to the expert, a sophistic rhetorician working in either an expert domain or in a practical domain such as politics has no need to know the truth about things. Instead, according to Plato, the rhetorician merely hits upon techniques of persuasion that achieve the desired ends (459c). First among these techniques, as the Roman rhetoricians would later reiterate, is the appeal to popular emotion.
In typical Roman fashion, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 bce) acknowledges that civic leaders must give emotions voice, but only in order to make proofs exciting to those who might otherwise remain apathetic. As Cicero laments in De oratore, intellectual understanding might have a direct line to the truth, but that line will usually remain untapped unless some external motivating force is applied. With some reluctance, then, the eloquent civic leader must embody the vivid language and delivery that speaks to the emotions of a popular audience (2.214).
Lurking in this Roman defense of eloquence is the fear that emotional appeals threaten civil society because they naturally cater to special interests without inherent consideration for the general good (De Oratore 2.186–187). For instance, the educator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35–c. 100 ce) takes seriously the stoic philosopher’s fundamental suspicion of emotion when he condemns emotional appeals that distract a judge from the truth (Institutio oratoria 6.1.7). So again for the Romans, logical reason by itself escapes a popular audience, while a thoughtless appeal to the emotions is considered profoundly unethical. The Roman solution to this dilemma was to add pathos to logos, to join reason and eloquence, and this by sheer fiat. The most influential formulation is furnished by Cicero in the opening pages of De inventione: since wisdom in itself is silent and powerless to speak, wisdom in the absence of eloquence is useless. What is needed if a commonwealth is to thrive is ratio atque oratio, powerful reasoning allied with powerful speech.
In his radical 1924 reintroduction to the concept of pathos, Martin Heidegger explicitly rejects this Roman compromise with its manipulative psychology that ties emotions to the untrained mind. Instead, Heidegger considers pathos in the tradition running from Aristotle’s Rhetoric through Augustine and the theology of Martin Luther, where a basic emotion such as fear makes our collective existence concrete and moves us in our fundamental belief (doxa). For Heidegger, the fact that we are subject to movement in our belief is precisely what makes us part of the human community and grounds all sorts of civic discourse, including discourse that seems essentially logical. Without pathos, according to Heidegger, we would lack the sympathies and antipathies that define community and shape social discourse down to its concrete propositions.
We might consider, for instance, the US logic for war against Iraq, as it was outlined by Colin Powell to the United Nations General Assembly in February 2003. In this case “wisdom” depended not just upon a deductive argument for correct action grounded in the truth of an immanent Iraqi threat; US action in this case followed a complex, mediated orchestration of the hopes and fears that defined friend and enemy around the key term “terror.” As Heidegger might remark in this case and similar, logos is grounded in pathos, not the other way around.
Repulsed by images such as an impassioned Josef Goebbels at Nuremberg, some postwar communication theorists like Jürgen Habermas returned to philosophical theories of civic discourse grounded in reason. However, Heidegger’s revitalization of Aristotelian pathos now finds resonance in a range of contemporary rhetorical theory that starts from our more messy, and irrational being-in-the-world, including theories that engage cultural studies and psychoanalysis. Prominent examples of this latter camp include Judith Butler, who is interested in hate speech and the passionate attachments that mark the contours of social discourse, and Michel Meyer, who analyzes in detail how real-world propositions necessarily implicate emotion. Finally, and ironically, this more radical rhetorical perspective prioritizing pathos has recently found a dubious ally in anti-Cartesian philosophy and brain science, which grounds cognition in emotion understood physiologically, not socially.
- Butler, J. (1997). The psychic life of power: Theories in subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Damasio, A. (2000). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Quill/ HarperCollins.
- Fortenbaugh, W. W. (2002). Aristotle on emotion. London: Duckworth.
- Gross, D. (2006). The secret history of emotion from Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” to modern brain science. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Gross, D., & Kemmann, A. (2005). Heidegger and rhetoric. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Habermas, J. (1984, 1987). The theory of communicative action, vols. 1 & 2. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Meyer, M. (2000). Philosophy and the passions: Toward a history of human nature. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.
- Nussbaum, M. (2001). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Sloan, T. O. (2001). The encyclopedia of rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press.